Twenty-five years ago, Brian McGrath was introduced during a luncheon at the 21 Club in midtown Manhattan as horse racing's first “commissioner.” Well, maybe not the commissioner for all of horse racing – just for the racetracks who were members of Thoroughbred Racing Associations, which had hired him. McGrath had no juice with regulatory bodies, Thoroughbred owners and breeders or jockeys. The truth is he couldn't even get TRA members to agree on things. As Stephen Keller, then in charge of Santa Anita, said: “Getting racetracks to work together is like herding cats.”
Yet McGrath, who came to this $700,000 a year job from an accomplished career marketing the Olympics and soccer, had big plans for racing, as shaped by the TRA board of directors. He said he planned to address the integrity of the sport, push for national medication rules, seek marketing and licensing partnerships, expand racing's fan base and leverage technology. Except no one told him he had little to no authority to do any of those things. McGrath, no matter his accomplishments in other sports, was a toothless tiger in horse racing.
Eighteen months later, the Office of the Commissioner of the TRA was closed, never to be filled again.
A few years later, in December 1998, Breeders' Cup creator John Gaines went public with a business plan for the National Thoroughbred Association (NTA), an owner-driven league office that would create a racing circuit loosely modeled after the PGA Tour, which is governed by professional golfers through a commissioner. Gaines and his supporters believed that the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 gave them the authority, as horse owners, to control the product – the horses – the game depended on.
That proposal ran afoul of the racetracks, The Jockey Club and most of the alphabet soup organizations whose fiefdoms were threatened. Gaines, who had many powerful owners and breeders behind him, capitulated to the opposition and agreed to make the NTA more inclusive, allowing racetracks and existing horsemen's organizations into the tent.
The NTA then morphed into the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which for a number of years was merged operationally with the Breeders' Cup. Some good things were done with television and marketing, but infighting and struggles over control eventually led to a divorce between the NTRA and Breeders' Cup. The NTRA was marginalized and today is pretty much a lobbying arm for the Thoroughbred industry in Washington, D.C., as well as a handicapping tournament organizer.
That's why the response to the current crisis over horse welfare has been so underwhelming. There really is no one who can speak for or take action on behalf of the industry. The same old alphabet groups still exist, and nothing gets done because no one is in charge.
At Keeneland on Tuesday, a coalition that includes a number of racetracks and the Breeders' Cup is expected to announce it is working together under the name “Thoroughbred Safety Coalition” in hopes of changing that. (Yes, I know, just what we need in an industry full of borderline useless organizations is another organization.) This didn't start earlier this year when an equine death count at Santa Anita became a national news nightmare. It's actually been a work in progress, initiated by Churchill Downs Inc. executives, more than two years ago. The CDI proposal was for a so-called “office of racing integrity” and started out as a counter-proposal to the Horseracing Integrity Act, legislation supported by The Jockey Club to create a national oversight body to regulate medication policies and enforcement under the umbrella of the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
That CDI proposal has taken on more urgency in 2019 as equine fatalities throughout the country are getting more coverage in local and national media and having an impact on the public's view of horse racing. Congressional support for the Horseracing Integrity Act has grown as well, with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein the latest cosponsor of the bill. Despite the growing support, however, the bill's chances appear dim as long as Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell is the Senate's majority leader. McConnell, a Louisville resident, apparently has given a sympathetic ear to Churchill Downs in its opposition to the Horseracing Integrity Act.
But why should this loosely bound coalition be taken any more seriously than the ill-fated commissioner hired by the TRA in 1994? Can a new volunteer organization do more than the NTRA's existing Safety and Integrity Alliance already does – namely put a Good Housekeeping style “seal of approval” on tracks that comply with certain standards?
That's the rub. Anyone can come up with a set of standards and rules to improve racing, but in an industry that is regulated on a state-by-state basis, how do you put teeth into enforcement?
Early iterations of this proposal called for non-compliant tracks to be excluded from simulcast signals from coalition members. Another thought would be to exclude non-compliant tracks from having their data collected and entered into Equibase, the racing industry's official database (majority owned by Thoroughbred Racing Associations members).
But that calls into question antitrust or restraint of trade issues, which suggest that the only way forward for the coalition to have true authority may be through federal legislation granting the industry the type of antitrust exemption Major League Baseball enjoys. Other professional sports leagues have to do a delicate dance around those issues.
I'll be interested to learn whether or not this coalition is heading in that direction or will be just another failed attempt to herd cats.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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